Luis Acosta, former Army Chaplain at U.S. Army Reserve (2009-2016)
Ephesians 2:8–9 say: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (NKJV for all texts).
In vs. 8, it says “by grace you have been saved.” The end of the verse repeats the same idea: “[salvation] is a gift from God.” Vs. 9 says salvation is not the result “of works,” so nobody can ever “boast” of saving themselves. Of course, the concept of self-salvation is an oxymoron. Salvation implies there is a danger from which to be saved. If one can save oneself, then there is no actual danger from which to be saved.
Putting this together, grace has to do with God’s attitude and disposition toward you: He loves you because that’s the way He is. Nothing you could ever do could change that disposition. That’s the grace factor. That disposition toward you makes salvation an option. And it, therefore, must be a gift. However, the gift of salvation (being saved) is not automatic. [If salvation were automatic, that would lead to the meaningless position of universal salvation].
Let’s go back to v.8. Not only does it say that salvation is made an available option by grace, but the verse says that it requires a response from the one who’s been offered the gift: “by faith.” A more meaningful translation is ‘by trust.’
A couple of questions need to be asked of the text: saved from what? And if you could save yourself, why would you need to be saved by somebody else?
A larger context is necessary. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had two choices: to trust what God said or to trust what satan said. God prohibited eating from one tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The prohibition included a punishment for the violation of the simple, easy command, and the punishment was certain death. satan, on the other hand, said that there would be no punishment, that death was not certain at all. Eve chose to trust satan’s deception (Gen.3:13) and disobeyed God; Adam chose to distrust God and “heeded the voice of [his] wife” (Gen.3:17) instead of God’s. The Salvation Option or Plan of Salvation was put in place to give Adam and Eve another opportunity to trust God. Disobedience follows distrust just as obedience follows trust. Another opportunity to trust would also by implication mean another opportunity to obey.
In speaking of salvation, we always have to remember that God is Lord. He is the ruler of the universe. Distrust is rebellion. Any discussion of God’s gracious salvation must make explicit trust in His Lordship. Jesus’ call to repentance – to turn away from satan’s distrust/disobedience and towards God in trust – is an implicit call to turn toward God in obedience.
James 2:14–26 is a longer passage that should be read in context. Assuming that it has been read, it’s necessary to refer to the core statements that are not contradictory but complementary to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
James 2:14 asks: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” He then illustrates his point in vss.15–17: It’s not enough for one to tell someone who is naked and hungry to go and “be warmed and filled.” One must provide for that person’s bodily needs of clothing and food. A trust in God that only talks pretty is pretty meaningless.
James’ key point is made in a very brief illustrative dialogue consisting of two one-liners:
1 – “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’”
2 – “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” The logic is incontrovertible.
Paul talks about salvation as God’s response to trust in Him as Lord and Savior while James describes the nature of that trust. In other words, true trust in God results in submission to the Lordship of the Savior. A false trust continues in disobedience. It is not repentant.
We cannot be saved by way of the good we do. That is not the purpose of doing good. On the other hand, we will be lost by way of the evil we do because it means we distrust Him.
Jesus said it more simply and beautifully, of course, than Paul: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). He also elaborated it even more explicitly: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word;…. He who does not love Me does not keep My words” (verses 23, 24; see also verse 21).
Lastly, Ephesians 2:10 really wraps up the statement in vs. 9 that salvation is “not by works”: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”